If you put together all the electricity plants of sub-Saharan Africa, their output comes to less than South Korea.
And the new US government sees this as not just a humanitarian problem, but part of a Trump strategy to keep the world safe.
In Washington, the State Department is talking about the need to shore up Africa’s power supply as a way to lift employment, reducing the risk of young men drifting into militia groups, and curbing the flood of economic migrants.
But how do you achieve that without spending money? The answer may lie in sharing American know-how, a strategy that would also get around countries like Zimbabwe where a a poor record on democracy and human rights has left donors twitchy about handing over cash.
In his campaign for the White House, Donald Trump said he would “make America great again”, by rebuilding the US economy. He would fund this by staying out of foreign wars, and cutting the billions Washington spends on NGOs, climate change, and aid programmes that critics say have failed to lift Africa out of poverty.
During his second term, Barrack Obama signed off close on a billion dollars in aid to South Africa alone.
Mr Trump also pledged to bring back the coal pits of Wyoming, Kentucky and West Virginia, restoring thousands of jobs. When asked about the effect this might have on the environment, he promised to spend big on making coal cleaner than ever.
And earlier this month, one of the president’s new advisors on energy, Professor Griff Thompson, said this technology might form a new style of aid to Africa.
The plan, he said, was to look at “what would be required to facilitate the sort of coal technology” other countries may need.
In Kenya, for example, less than half the population is linked to the national grid, especially away from cities like Mombasa and Nairobi.
Now there are plans for Kenya’s first coal-fired power station near Lamu, one of the oldest towns in East Africa dating back nearly 700 years.
A local “Save Lamu” campaign is against the project and the US green lobby has raised concerns.
In the Mui basin, just over 100 kilometres east of Nairobi, Kenya has an estimated one billion tons of coal and a Chinese firm has been awarded the contract to mine it for supply to another planned power station nearby.
Zimbabwe gets close on half its electricity from coal, while in South Africa it’s 93 per cent.
“Whether it’s coal or natural gas or renewable energy, we see it as to the pathway toward greater economic growth,” says Professor Thompson, adding that, under Donald Trump, the US will no longer meddle in the environmental affairs of other nations. “It is the prerogative of every country to determine their energy mix.”
Nakul Virat agrees that all countries need energy from several sources. Born in India, and raised in Nigeria and Ukraine, he is business leader for Africa and the Middle East at generator firm, Cummins.
“There always has to be a mix of power. So whether you go solar, gas or coal, a hospital needs a back-up generator. Even in Europe or the US, this is true.”
Solar, he says, is now cheaper than ever, “but it means protecting solar panels. Theft of these can be a problem all over the world and especially in areas with high levels of poverty. Even generators can be targets for criminals. So you need to use common sense.”
Clean coal technology as part of a US aid package would get around the complaint that, all too often, donor money ends up in hands of the wealthy or the political elite. It’s hard to pocket a transfer of science.
But if Kenya has a lot of coal in the ground, Tanzania is sitting on a fortune, with reserves estimated at five billion tons, mostly in the south along the border with Mozambique.
In East Africa, Tanzania is by far the largest country and has the biggest population, but its GDP of around $50 billion is smaller than Kenya. And four out of five Tanzanians are not on the grid.
In the 1940s, Britain built a port at Mtwara, 570 kilometres south of Dar es Salaam. It was part of a plan for peanut farming that never took off and for decades the habour has been idle.
Now government has refurbished the docks to export coal from nearby mines. A power station is also on the cards with barely a word of protest.
The nearby Dangote cement factory is a key employer and, in this, Tanzania is not out of step. Globally, around 90 per cent of cement is made using coal-fired kilowatts (along with 70 per cent of steel), and it is hoped a cheap source of power will draw new factories to an area with high unemployment.
Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana and Zimbabwe are all on track to burn more of the black stuff for electricity.
So what can the United States do to help?
“It is only by keeping an open mind about coal that we can tap its potential,” according to Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry. The trick, he says, is the new “clean technology.”
Using carbon-capture, where CO2 and other emissions are filtered off and sold, some of biggest US mining firms including Peabody and Cloud Peak say America can maintain its commitment to global warming with a “coal based climate change plan.”
They want to spread that science around the world but, as usual, it’s where doing good meets self-interest.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s senior advisor (and son in law) Jared Kushner want the US to stay in the Paris Accord on climate change. In the past year, 195 countries — including Zimbabwe and a majority of Africa states — have signed the deal to help bring down temperatures.
The problem is, Washington also has to support the coal mines, a key plank in the Trump campaign. In the past six months, more than 35 000 mining jobs have been restored across some of the poorest parts of America.
The challenge is to win allies, within the Paris Accord, for a mix of clean energy including wind and solar but also gas and coal.
Sharing the new technology could do just that while reducing the billions Washington spends annually on aid, another Trump pledge.
And he expects the private sector to do more.
Professor Griff Thompson believes that if countries in Africa make investment attractive, energy firms will bring their money. “I’ve talked to banker after banker on energy finance,” he says. “Establish sound policy and regulatory structures and the money will find you.”
Nakul Virat says the push is coming from voters.. “Electricity has become political, from how it’s generated to what it costs, or why in the 21st century, millions still live without something the developed world takes for granted.
“Perhaps no where more than India where the current government made it a core pledge in the 2014 election to sort out the country’s power shortage, and there are signs they are doing that.”
As Kenya moves to elections in August – and seven other African countries in the rest 2017 – politicians will (again) promise to get rural communities on the grid. That’s if they can be heard over the thud-thud-thud from hundreds of small generators.
Plans for coal-fired plants are not some new heresy: it’s where India, China, Europe, Australia and the US get much of their power.
But if Africa is going to burn coal, the challenge is to do it in the most responsible way possible.
America’s clean-coal research and the idea of sharing it couldn’t have come at a better time.Post published in: Featured